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Speaking Of Rights

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This is an academic work, dense in prose and deep in arguments. Yet, Negotiating Communication Rights by Pradip Ninan Thomas is a useful introduction to the topical subject of democratising communication, and a critique of existing paradigms within media and communications theories. The democratisation of communication has been the subject of debates in the age of media corporatisation, excessive media governance, thorny copyright issues and the rise of digital communications, with activists seeking to build cultures of open communications technologies—exemplified by the Free and Open Source (FOSS) movement—in the face of media monopolies as well as state control. Thomas emphasises the need to embed all studies of communication rights (CR) within everyday life, arguing persuasively that we to examine how ordinary people create and appropriate spaces for self-expression and the cultural environments of their choice for this purpose.

Opening with a quick history of communication rights (CR) Thomas defines CR as a 'framework within which specific communications deficits are highlighted and addressed with a view to its resolution'. Interestingly, he chooses cultural practices to locate the CR movement (for example the Maharashtrian tamasha). Later he traces the key moments in the rise of the global CR movement and the role of organisations such as UNESCO, the Platform for Communications Rights and Communications Rights in the Information Society. Subsequently Thomas offers a philosophy of communication rights, tracing a line through European thinkers as diverse as Gadamer, Buber, Levinas and the inevitable Habermas. He also notes an Indian 'tenor' in CR campaigns with Narmada, the RTI and the work of activists like Baba Amte, Medha Patkar as well earlier ones like Gandhi and Iyothee Dass where the voiced resistance is grounded in local realities and traditions. Thomas goes on to make a case for distributive justice —with CR being one of other rights, including the right to survival and livelihood—that would treat self-respect as the basis of CR. The next chapter is devoted to theorising CR in India, where Thomas rightly points to the over-emphasis on 'practicality' rather than theory in academic debates on the subject. India's negotiation with modernity and the struggle for an open public sphere involves, Thomas notes, factoring in the role of the state, corporatisation (he argues that the Bt Brinjal issue was a CR issue where the state refused to share information about GM foods), and sectarian interests. Thomas also calls for due attention to the CR of refugees and displaced people, noting that 'many majorities do not enjoy the means to communicate in the so-called information societies in which we live'.

The second part of the book features five case studies on major CR movements: RTI, FOSS, Community Radio, Women and Media and the Citizen Journalism. Access to information, the author notes, is the most crucial aspect of any communication and social change projects where information is essential to leverage and mediate actions. RTI represents a valorisation of the Voice—as in the politics of speaking where the right to speak is embedded in social contexts. Thomas here examines local practices such as Jan Sunwai (public hearing) where the petitioner possesses this Voice. The Community Radio Movement, which has been mired in bureaucratic red tape and delays, has also been affected, notes Thomas, by privatisation of broadcasting and consequent proliferation of FM and such channels. The concentration of media ownership affects media diversity. Community Radio is anti-monopoly and thus symbolises a 'diversity of Voices in the public sphere'. Thomas also explores in considerable detail the problems and limitations that Community Radio movement has to face in India - from capacity building to the ubiquitous licensing.

The Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI) is the face of the 'women in media' movement. Thomas analyses the representation of women in media, women's access to media as professionals (journalists, camerapersons), their access to media as citizens and audiences, and the impact on women of laws and policies relating to the media and communication. He examines the media representation of the Women's Reservation Bill in four English dailies to discover that the entire debate is skewed for it ignores the role of women campaigners for Reservation. Thomas also studies the Blank Noise and Pink Chaddi campaigns and the iconic figure of Irom Sharmila.

FOSS represents, according to Thomas, the advocacy of access and affordability in the face of monopolists like Google and Microsoft. It shows, argues Thomas, that CR is not just about the freedom of expression but about right of access to information and technology and the right to participation in the creation of information environments of one's choice. FOSS makes a huge difference to differently enabled people, and Thomas points to the Right to Read campaign by the Centre for Internet and Society, because technologies can be made that are affordable and shareable. In his last case study, of the Citizen Journalist (CJ) movement, Thomas makes a case for CJ as an extension of media diversity. Reading Cplash, Merinews and other CJ projects, Thomas cautions that CJ might end up being co-opted by commercial media entities, and thus erase the edge that CJ inherently possesses.

In his postscript Thomas underscores the necessity for greater attention to CR, the role of the citizens in initiating and expanding the campaigns for CR (in the face of corporatisation and state interventions), for it is in effective, widespread and diversified CR that the chances for 'bettering an imperfect democracy' exist.

The value of Thomas' book lies in its ability to shift the debates around CR out of just the 'media and communications' discipline into larger domains of culture. It is therefore also a 'Cultural Studies of Media' book. The case studies and the smooth jargon-free theorisation make it eminently readable by people from a cross-section of society. By paying attention to the cultural contexts of communication, Thomas ensures that we embed all campaigns, disputes and arguments about CR in specific communities, institutional structures, and even geographies, though some more attention to media policy might have added a certain something to the debates he maps. Negotiating Communication Rights is an important, topical and relevant book for all of those interested in questions beyond tired ones like 'Press freedom' or censorship. It sets agendas, examines tangled histories and defines future trends in what is surely one of the most significant cultural issues of our information age: the right to communicate.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 28-11-2011)